The original kiwi: Interview with a kiwi bird

kiwi

Photo by tara hunt. Kiwi Encounter. (photo of a model kiwi because the real thing is very elusive and park rangers don’t want you taking photos). CC. https://flic.kr/p/495oR2

 

Amelia: Here I am on Stewart Island in New Zealand, the place I’m most likely to get a glimpse of the secretive, nocturnal kiwi. I’ll be hiking in this coastal rainforest for three days, so I’m guaranteed to see one, right?

Kiwi: I wouldn’t bet on it.

A: Are those the dulcet tones of a kiwi I hear?

K: Hardly. My call sounds like a little girl screaming.

A:  Finally! I’ve been up all night waiting to see you. Would you mind coming a bit closer?

K: I’m fine right here, thanks. As an endangered bird, I’m not taking any chances.

A: But I don’t want to hurt you-I won’t even take a picture. I know the park staff are pretty strict about that.

K: Nope, not doing it. Humans have done too much damage to our species. I don’t owe you anything.

A: What did we do?

K: Well, as a flightless, ground-nesting bird who evolved on an island without any natural predators, I was toast when your ancestors decided that New Zealand’s rainforests needed to be turned into English countryside. Not only did you destroy our homes under the trees, you decided to introduce rats, opossums and stoats. Our chicks grow slowly, and it takes about 3-5 years before they can fight off a ravenous stoat. Domestic dogs and cats also make easy meals of our young ones.

A: Aren’t those predators a problem for adults too? You may be the size of a large cat, but you’re still pretty helpless looking.

K: That’s what you think. I can beat up a stoat easily.

A: Really? You’re a hairy bird with no wings. How do you manage it?

K: With my feet! We pack a pretty powerful kick, and we don’t put up with any nonsense from predators.

A: So at what age can you start laying those gigantic eggs you’re so famous for?

K: You mean the ones that takes up most of my insides and squishes all my organs into my sternum? The one I carry for 30 days and weights half a kilo?

A: I can see this is a sore point

K: Just a little. We can lay eggs once we’re four years old. We’re generally solitary, but during the mating season we’ll pair up. Generally we mate for life, which can be up to 40 years if we’re lucky.

A: Wow, that’s old for a bird!

K: Well when there’s no natural predators, life’s a walk in the park

A: What’s the secret to such a long partnership with your mate?

K: Once I lay that monster of an egg, it’s my partner’s job to sit on it for 80 days. My bit is done.

A: Wow, that’s a long time!

K: Yep. The upside is that the chicks are nearly independent when they’re born. After two weeks we chase them out of the nest, and they’re on their own.

A: That’s incredible! I’ve been hearing some sneezes coming from your direction. Is everything alright?

K: Yep. It’s a side-effect of having nostrils at the very end of my beak. I look for bugs by plunging my beak deep into the soil. This means that I constantly have dirt up my nose, so I have to sneeze to clear it out. My keen nose doesn’t do me any good if it’s full of dirt. My long whiskers and the sensor on the end of my bill also spot vibrations in the soil.

A: Wait, you have whiskers? Isn’t that a bit weird for a bird?

K: I’m no ordinary bird. There were no mammals on New Zealand before you introduced them, apart from bats. I adapted to fill a mammals’ niche, because obviously they left it open. I have hair-like feathers, solid-marrow bones and live in a burrow like a rabbit.

A: I’m sure you get this all the time: have you ever eaten a kiwi fruit?

K: Um, no. We are the original kiwis. The fruits are actually Chinese Gooseberries that were re-branded in the 1970’s in an effort to get New Zealander’s to buy them. I guess it worked.

A: Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’ll leave you alone now.

K: That’s all I ask.

References:Te Papa museum, various interpretive posters in NZ bird sanctuaries

 

Symbol of love? Not so much. Interview with a snarky swan

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

Me: This Valentine’s Day I decided to talk to the most romantic bird of all: the swan.

Trumpeter swan: If you get any closer I’ll break your arm with my wing.

Me: Whoa, that was uncalled for! Not to mention unattractive, coming from the symbol of beauty and faithful love.

Swan: Hey, I never asked to be a symbol of anything. I’m just an animal like any other that eats, breeds, poops and dies.

Me: But you do mate for life, right?

Swan: Yes, most of the time. If the egg-laying thing doesn’t work out, we’ll generally split and find another hot swan who’s more fertile.

Me: That’s kind of harsh.

Swan: Well, get used to it. Life is harsh. Speaking of harsh, if we’re such an important symbol of love, why did you hunt us nearly to extinction? In 1933, there were only 77 breeding pairs of Trumpeter swans left in Canada. So much for love and compassion.

Me: That’s awful! But I can’t say I’m surprised. We’re pretty good at hunting things to extinction. Dodo, passenger pigeon, you know.

Swan: Yes, I’ve heard. We used to live across Canada, from the Yukon to the St. Lawrence River. The indigenous peoples ate our eggs and meat and used our feathers, but at least they did it sustainably. Then some dumb Europeans came and decided to kill most of us for meat, skin and feathers. I guess they thought they deserved to wear our feathers more than we did.

Me: I said I was sorry, okay! What does your population look like today?

Swan: Fortunately for us, some 1916 tree-huggers decided make hunting us illegal under the Migratory Birds Convention, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Little by little, by feeding us during the winter and reintroducing us to places we once lived, we bounced back. Now there are about 16,000 wild trumpeters in North America, and we’re no longer in danger of extinction.

Me: Yay!

Swan: Oh yes, whoopee. We’re a little bitter, as you can see.

Me: Do you have any other predators?

Swan: Besides humans? Not really. Eagles, owls, coyotes and mink may take a baby on occasion, but as adults we’re pretty big birds to kill. Much like the Canada goose, not much out there is big enough to eat us. We’re also really strong. I wasn’t kidding about breaking your arm with my wing. I fight off coyotes and dogs that way.

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Me: I’m just noticing now how huge you are.

Swan: Yep, largest waterfowl in North America. I may have a three-metre wingspan, but I’m a lightweight, only weighing 10-12 kilograms.

Me: I guess a lot of that bulk is feathers, right?

Swan: You got it. Our down is five centimeters thick, and makes minus 30 feel balmy. Your fancy Canada Goose jacket has nothing on us.

Me: All that soft down would make for nice cuddling, wouldn’t it?

Swan: There you go getting all touchy-feely again.

Me: So what are you doing these days?

Swan: Well, in the winter my main job is to not starve to death. My favorite thing to eat is plants covered in water, so I have to find places where the water isn’t covered in ice. British Colombia is pretty good for that, because salt water estuaries don’t freeze. There’s also some hot springs in the mountains that stay clear of ice all winter.

Me: What kinds of things do you eat?

Swan: We eat roots that we pull out muddy river bottoms. I can’t think of a less sexy eating habit.

Me: Spring nesting must be romantic, though.

Swan: I guess. We build our nests in the middle of water, often on old beaver lodges or dams or floating vegetation. My partner and I use the same nest year after year. No romantic gestures there, just simple practicality. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Me: How many eggs do you lay?

Swan: Generally five to six. I sit on them for 32 days. 32 days of sitting on bumpy objects and not being able to fly because I’m moulting. I can’t think of anything less romantic.

Me: I’d love to come see your babies in the spring!

Swan: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I can get pretty aggressive.

Me: More so than today?

Swan: Touché

References
http://nandugreen.typepad.com/chasing_the_wind/trumpeterswans.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/trumpeter-swan.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/swan/
https://suite.io/rosemary-drisdelle/205j27t
http://www.abbeville.com/blog/?tag=trumpeter-swan

8 things I didn’t know about native bees

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jim_mcculloch/2950920481/

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jim_mcculloch/2950920481/

I have a confession to make; I’m an insect geek.

And when it comes to social insects like bees and ants I’m even geekier than usual.

So when I learned that the Learning Garden at the University of Ottawa was holding a free workshop on insect identification, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

One of the coolest things we learned was how to tell the difference between flies and bees. You would think this would be easy, right? Bees are fuzzy with yellow and black stripes. Flies are black and shiny.

In fact, it isn’t that simple! Many of the native bee species in Canada look like tiny flies. Also, many fly species are camouflaged to look like bees so predators won’t mess with them. So how do you tell them apart? Well, look at the antennae. In most cases, flies have short, stubby antennae and bees have long, languorous ones.

Armed with this information, we stepped out into the University’s learning garden to find some insects. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I was amazed to see how many bees there were! They came in all shapes and sizes, from 2mm to 2cm. They also came in an exciting palette of colours, from black to grey to bright green! Even cooler, all these bees were native to Canada!

I first learned about native bees while writing an essay on the possible causes of the major honey bee deaths in North America. I learned that these unsung-heros do a great job of pollinating farmers crops for free! It’s sad that we aren’t taught more about them in school. So I did some reading, and here’s what I found out.

1. Everything you’ve been told about bees is a lie

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more like ‘everything you’ve been told about bees only applies to honey bees’.

Out of 19,000 bee species worldwide, most museums, science centres, schools and documentaries only talk about one: the European Honey bee. You know, the queen with thousands of female workers, the yellow and black-striped workers bringing back nectar and pollen to feed the larvae, the waggle dance to communicate where flowers are located. You’ve heard it all before.

And there’s a good reason to talk about them. European honey bees are commercially valuable. They were domesticated a long time ago to produce honey and pollinate crops. Without pollination, we wouldn’t have fruits like apples, tomatoes, cherries, pumpkins, strawberries or blueberries. In fact, we need pollinators for 1 out of every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat!

The European honeybee is so essential to agriculture that European settlers brought them to Canada. The European Honey bee is now a mainstay of the Canadian economy. However, there were bees in Canada already, around 730 species to be exact! And even though we don’t talk about them very much, they’re still here! For some crops, like blueberries, native bees are even better pollinators than honey bees.

2. They came from underground

Bees weren’t always cute and cuddly pollen-eaters. They used to eat meat! Yep, bees evolved from predatory digger wasps, which still exist today.

Why this drastic change from munching on other insects to sipping nectar? Well, it had everything to do with the arrival of flowering plants. Believe it or not, flowers didn’t exist until the Cretaceous period (1465-65 million years ago). This means that dinosaurs pre-date flowers. Can you imagine a world without flowers? Weird, huh? The evolution of flowers created a whole new food source, and bees, wasps, butterflies and moths evolved to eat it up. Maybe sipping nectar was easier than catching live prey!

3. All by myself…

Considering that honey bees are the poster child of the social insect, I was surprised to learn that most native bees in North America not social at all. They live by themselves, and are called solitary bees. Each female builds her own nest, lays her own eggs, and collects all her own pollen and nectar. Who needs hundreds of sisters when you can be independent?

What does a solitary bee’s life cycle look like? A female finds a male to mate with, then digs or finds a burrow to lay eggs in. She collects a huge ball of nectar and pollen, then lays an egg on top of it. When the egg hatches, the larvae feeds on the pollen, and in the fall becomes an adult. The adults hibernate through the winter to emerge in the spring.

4. Hives? No thanks.

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/84221353@N00/5713786629/

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/84221353@N00/5713786629/

Most solitary bees don’t live in fancy hives, but in holes in the ground. Yep, kind of like hobbits. 90% of native bee species lay their eggs in burrows in the ground.

Osima bees have by far the cutest homes. They like to nest in tiny spaces including snail shells, keyholes and even locks!

5. Busy bee? No, lazy bee.

Some bee species trick someone else into doing all the work for them. They lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, and avoid the work of collecting pollen and making a nest. This behaviour is called cleptoparastisitm. So much for busy bees!

6. Bumbling around

The fuzzy Bumble bee is indigenous to Canada. It’s the only bee that sticks around to feed its growing larvae. All other native bees hightail it out of there once the eggs are laid. In the wild, bumble bees also nest in the ground, but usually let someone else do the work. Holes in trees or abandoned rodent dens make a cozy nest. However, domesticated honey bees are managed using hives.

7. Picky, picky

Some Canadian bees are picky eaters. They only collect nectar and pollen from one kind of flower. They aren’t doing this to be difficult. They’re doing it because they have evolved to be perfectly suited to that flower. For example, the bee Melissodes desponsa only visits thistles. Ecologists call picky eaters ‘specialists’. Most Canadian bees are ‘generalists’ which means they can get food from many different kinds of flowers.

8. The extinction factor

Because of their sensitivity to environmental factors, some bee species are prone to extinction. This is especially true for specialists that only feed on one type of flower. If the flower disappears, they are in trouble. And it’s not just climate change that is causing their food to disappear. Many of the flowers we grow in our gardens come from Europe, and most native bees can’t use them for food.In addition, chemical pesticides meant for pesky insect will also kill bees.

Okay, enough doom and gloom. What can you do to help native bees? You can give them food by planting native wildflowers, or by waiting to mow those pesky ‘weeds’ until after they have flowered. You can give them places to live, by leaving bare patches of ground in your garden. You can even install woodblocks with holes drilled into them. These are called trap-nests, and will attract bees that like to live in pre-existing holes.

Want to learn more? Check out this user-friendly field guide to native pollinators by the David Suzuki Foundation. The photos are incredible!
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/downloads/Pollinator_Guide_5pg.pdf

Oh, and I’ve also decided to open up my blog to comments. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for a post, feel free to post them!

Also, if you haven’t checked out my Art page, you might like it.

References
http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/evolution/plantEvolution.shtml
http://www.pollinationcanada.ca/index.php?k=358
http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/bsc/ejournal/pgs_03/pgs_03_main.html
http://www.beefriend.org/documents/Recommendations%20for%20Conservation%20of%20Pollinators%20on%20FarmlandFinal_DSC.pdf
http://www.gnb.ca/0171/10/0171100025-e.asp

Nuts to you! Interview with a Grey Squirrel

Yes, they raid our bird feeders, but how can you resist this face? Photo by Peter G. Trimming. “If you think I’m cute, can I have a peanut?” CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/peter-trimming/5154665962/

Yes, they raid our bird feeders, but how can you resist this face? Photo by Peter G. Trimming. “If you think I’m cute, can I have a peanut?” CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/peter-trimming/5154665962/

In backyards across the country, wars are being waged. Wars between people who install birdfeeders and the squirrels that raid them.

I grew up in this warzone. More often than not there was a fat, black squirrel in our Calgary birdfeeder instead of joyful little chickadees. After months of effort, Dad finally surrendered to the furry invaders. He started leaving piles of seeds on the patio just for the squirrels, with the hopes that they would forget the birdfeeder. They didn’t.

Today, I come face to face with my long-time adversary, the Eastern Grey Squirrel.

A: Why do you raid birdfeeders? Aren’t you ashamed of stealing food from birds?!

S: Whoa lady, calm down! I know you’ve had some bad history with squirrels, but that doesn’t make us all evil rodents.

When it comes to food, we’re opportunists. Being able to eat lots of different things is what makes us so successful. In nature, there is no ‘bird food’ and ‘squirrel food’. It’s about who gets to the food first.

A: Okay, I guess home-owners shouldn’t expect only birds to show up at their feeders. In Calgary, I heard that you were an invasive species. Is that true?

S: We prefer ‘introduced’. It’s you humans who introduced us to Calgary! We originally only lived in the hardwood forests of Eastern Canada. A few hundred years ago you humans decided to put us in places we’d never been before, like Western Canada, South Africa and the U.K. And, being opportunists, we thrived!

A: You sure did! Did you run into problems with the species that already lived there?

S: We’re often competing with red squirrels over food and territory. Despite their small size, they are vicious! We usually give them what they want to avoid a scuffle.

A: You don’t strike me as non-violent. I often see you chasing each other through the trees!

S: It’s true that we chase each other a lot. We work hard to protect our territory from invaders. However, it’s all bluffing and posturing. Unlike the red squirrels, we rarely come to blows.

A: Speaking of colours, what’s the difference between a grey squirrel and a black squirrel?

S: Grrr, we get this question all the time! We’re the same species! Get it right!

A: Sorry, that’s obviously a sore spot. Speaking of sore spots, I notice that the end of your tail is missing! What happened?

S: Oh, that. A hawk grabbed me in mid-leap last week. Thankfully she only got the last vertebrae of my tail. I can shed those tail bones easily when those kind of things happen.

A: Whoa, like those lizards that lose their tails! Can you re-grow that tail bone?

S: No.

A: Oh. That sucks. What is your tail for, anyways? It’s almost as long as the rest of your body!

S: My tail is good for lots of things! I use it to distract predators, communicate with my peers, and keep myself stable while jumping through the trees. It’s also a perfect blanket for cold nights.

A: Tell me more about how you communicate. You’re certainly very vocal! For years I thought I was hearing bird calls when it was actually squirrels.

S: It’s true, we have a large range of sounds. Many are alarm calls, to warn other squirrels about a predator, and to let the predator know that we’ve seen them. We even combine tail signals with sound signal to let others know if the predator is on the ground and in the air.

A: I guess you spend most of your time in trees?

S: Yes indeed! Not only do we get food from trees, but we also make our nests in them.

A: Squirrels make nests? What do they look like?

S: My favorite nest are inside tree trunks. An old wood-pecker hole works wonderfully. However, when I can’t find one, I’ll build my own nest high in the branches out of twigs and leaves.

A: I know you eat nuts and seeds, but what else do you eat?

S: It really depends on the time of year. In the spring, we love eating buds off the trees. In the summer, we pig out on fruit, like berries, apples and winged maple seeds. In the fall, it’s all about the nuts! If I’m really hungry, I may snack on insects, caterpillars, or even bird nestlings.

A: That is quite a variety of foods. Do you hibernate during the winter?

S: Not at all! That’s why we keep busy in the fall hiding nuts and seeds to get us through the winter.

A: Do you remember where you buried all those nuts?

S: No! We’re talking about thousands of nuts here! My memory isn’t that good. I use my nose to find them.

A: Do you find every nut you bury?

S: Of course not! I’ll find maybe 85% of them. The rest are found by other animals, or grow into new trees.

A: I guess we’re well into the summer breeding season right now. How do you go about finding a mate?

S: It’s actually a lot of fun. I’ll climb to the top of a tree and start a homing call to attract all the males in the area. Once a group of males has assembled, they will argue amongst themselves to find out who is dominant. It’s a lot of posturing and testosterone, as you could expect.

A: Then what happens?

S: Well, then I lead them in a wild chase through the trees! When I know which one I want, then I’ll let him mate with me. As long as he can keep up!

A: Does he help raise the babies?

S: Nope. I’m on my own. But it isn’t too bad. In 12 weeks they’re independent adults. And just so you know, my last litter had both grey and black kittens!

A: Kittens?

S: Baby squirrels.

A: That’s adorable!

S: So we’re not just birdseed thieves anymore?

A: Definitely not! Thanks for talking with me.

S: My pleasure.

References:
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/mammals/eastern-grey-squirrel.html
http://www.ecokids.ca/pub/eco_info/topics/field_guide/mammals/squirrel.cfm
http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/features/2014/06/23/not-to-brag-but-i/

Interview with a Canada Goose

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankaronline/8347919573/

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankaronline/8347919573/

My post on Red-winged blackbirds received a lot of positive feedback. However, someone did comment that the male blackbird I interviewed seemed sexist. My response was that this bird was an individual, and not representative of his entire species. He also happened to be the head of a harem.

To even things out, I promised that next I would interview a male bird that mates for life. So I chose the noble, the beautiful, the faithful- Canada Goose!

A: Thanks for taking time to talk to me today.

G: No problem, but I can’t stay long. I need to get back to the wife and kids. We had five little ones this spring, and they’re getting to the rambunctious toddler stage!

A: Five kids! Sounds like a handful!

G: They’re certainly hard to keep in line. When we walk down to the river my wife goes first, followed by the kids, and then I bring up the rear. Without fail, one of the kids will veer off the path into the bushes. My job is make sure she stays with the rest of us. There are a lot of predators out there that would like to snack on a baby goose.

A: What predators do you have to watch out for?

G: I’ve seen foxes, coyotes, gulls, ravens and even bears hanging around my nest. Pet dogs also make me nervous.

A: Yikes! What do you do in those situations?

G: My wife sits on the nest and shields the babies with her body, and I’ll try to lure the predator away from the nest. I’ll hiss, open my mouth, and open my wings to make myself look bigger. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll hit them with my wings. They may look light, but they’re strong enough to do some damage. This usually convinces the predator to look for dinner elsewhere.

A: How brave of you! Aren’t you worried about getting eaten yourself?

G: Not really. It takes a lot to kill an adult goose, and there aren’t many predators big enough to take us down. Once you survive childhood, you’re pretty much guaranteed to live for at least 10 years. With all those predators around, childhood is pretty rough. I expect only half of my kids will survive the summer.

A: Interesting. You seem like a very proud father. Are there more babies on the way?

G: Not this year. My wife lays eggs once a year in the early spring. We start early so our babies have time to grow strong enough for the fall migration. We only want what’s best for them.

A: How do you choose where to put the nest?

G: My wife is the one in charge of that. She’s very nostalgic, and every spring we come back to the same place where she was born. If we can successfully raise children there, we’ll keep coming back to that spot. If none of our chicks survive we’ll try a different spot.

A: And who makes the nest?

G: My wife does. She chooses a flat spot so she can see predators coming from a long ways away. She’ll make the nest out of grasses and line it with her own down.

A: Who is in charge of sitting on the eggs?

G: That’s my wife’s job. She sits on them for 25-28 days before they hatch. She’s a wonderful mother. She will only leave them to drink, feed or bathe, and then she’s right back on the nest. I’ll take over for her when she’s away. I love keeping them warm and hearing their soft peeps through the shells.

A: Wait, your babies communicate while they’re still in the egg?

G: Yep, pretty amazing right? It happens close to the time they’re ready to hatch.

A: It seems to me like your wife is doing most of the work! What’s your job in this partnership?

G: How dare you! I’m on guard duty. I stand by faithfully as she sits on the nest, protecting her and our eggs from predators. It’s a very noble calling.

A: Okay. What happens when the eggs hatch?

G: Goslings are ready to take on the world! They are born with their eyes open, and in two days they are swimming, foraging and diving right beside us! They grow up so fast. Even though they like to think they’re independent, they still run back to the nest and under mom’s feathers whenever it is cold, rainy or windy out. It’s quite adorable. They spend a lot of time eating and sleeping, and don’t leave the nest until they are 42-50 days old. Even then they’ll stick to us like glue for the rest of the year, even during migration.

A: Tell me more about migration. Canada Geese are famous for flying in a V shape. Why do you do that?

G: Well, we often migrate in family groups. Migration is no picnic, and we can fly over 1000 km in a single day. The V shape helps us save energy. The leader creates an air current and we all follow in his wake. The leader is usually an older, more experienced goose. It’s tiring to be the leader, so we’ll take turns doing it. The V shape also makes it easy for the group to change direction and speed very quickly, to avoid a passing airplane, for example.

A : I’m sure many of our readers have seen you on golf courses, parks and bike paths. Some people complain that you make a mess with your poop, and ravage perfectly manicured lawns. What do you have to say about this?

G: Yeesh, you humans! You’re never happy. In the early 1900s, the Giant Canada Goose of Southern Manitoba was almost extinct because you hunted us and ate our eggs. You decided that you wanted to save the geese, so you bred us in captivity and released us into places we had never lived before, like BC, Quebec and the Maritime provinces. You protected us with the Migratory Bird Convention, so people need a license to harm us or our eggs. Then you created perfect, open habitats for us, just full of our favorite food; short grass! Now you complain that there are too many of us. Well, you have no-one to blame but yourselves.

A: I guess you’re right. That conservation plan worked a little too well. Why do you like urban areas so much?

G: No predators, lawns everywhere, humans don’t shoot us, what’s not to love?

A: I guess, but can’t you poop somewhere else? It makes the bike paths hazardous.

G: Listen, we’d move if we could, but we can’t. During the summer we can’t fly for 6-8 weeks. This is because we’re moulting, losing our flight feathers and growing new ones. Growing feathers takes a lot of energy, so we need a lot of food. I can easily eat 4 lbs of grass a day and excrete 2 lbs of poop when I’m moulting. I’m sorry we’re making a mess of your lawn, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

A: Well, it makes sense when you put it that way. I imagine not being able to fly is frustrating.

G: It’s not so bad. We can still swim. We spend half of our time in the water anyway, and do most of our feeding on land. And we’re with our family and friends, so life is good.

A: One last question. Is it true that Canada geese mate for life?

G: Of course it’s true, what are you suggesting? One couple we know just celebrated their 20th anniversary!

A: Okay, okay no offense meant! How did you meet your wife?

G: I met my wife when I was 2 years old. I knew instantly that she was ‘the one’ because she was the same size as me. I think you humans call that ‘assortative mating’. We wanted to have kids, but we waited until we had been together a few years before we finally did. I didn’t want to be like my brother, who cheated on his wife while she was incubating their eggs. They were young and foolish, and they ended up breaking up. It usually takes 2-3 years for a strong pair bond to form between a male and a female. It’s uncommon for a couple to start a family before that 2 year mark.

A: Thanks so much for talking with me! Say hi to the wife and kids for me.

G: Will do!

References:
http://www.ec.gc.ca/mbc-com/default.asp?lang=en&n=98A918B1-1
http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/kids/animal-facts/canada_goose.asp
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Goose/lifehistory
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Goose/lifehistory

There’s a bat on my doorstep!


I find wild animals fascinating. I was raised on PBS Nature documentaries. Some of my earliest memories involve cheetahs chasing down and disemboweling gazelles. I donate money to save polar bears, and gasp with delight when I glimpse a deer in a National park.

However, a wild animal on my property is a different story.

As I stepped out into the bright sunshine with my laundry this morning, I noticed a brown shape huddled on my doorstep. It was a bat. A bat that was obviously in trouble. There were bloodstains on the concrete. His wing was crumpled. He wasn’t moving.

I assumed he was dead.

He wasn’t. That became clear when I tried to pick him up with a plastic bag.

He struggled lethargically. He extended his good wing. He opened his mouth to reveal tiny teeth and an amazingly pink throat.

I was hit with a number of emotions at once:

1) Wonder. I had never seen a bat outside of a zoo, and I was fascinated. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live upside down, and to see not with your eyes but with your nose and ears. It was amazing to see this creature up close.

2) Grief. It was gut-wrenching to see this animal suffering. His broken wing was glued to the ground so he couldn’t move.

3) Responsibility. Because I was the one who found him, it was up to me to deal with him. I had no idea what to do next. Part of me wanted a neighborhood cat to come along and solve the problem for me.
So I did what most people do these days when they don’t know what to do. I Googled it.

I learned that the Ottawa Humane Society is the organization to go to if you find injured or sick wildlife. (http://ottawahumane.ca/wildlife/injuredsickwildlife.cfm)

I also learned that you should never touch bats. Bats that are sick can also infect humans. Oops. (http://www.ottawahumane.ca/wildlife/batfaqs.cfm)

It was a relief to call the professionals. I was asked to put a recycling box over the bat to contain him. They would do the rest.

Forty-five minutes later a Humane Society van was leaving my driveway with the injured bat. He was no longer my responsibility.

As I watched them drive away, I thought about how we humans generally interact with urban wildlife. It is amazing how many animals live in cities without us ever seeing them. I’m always surprised how seldom I see rats, mice and raccoons. This is either because they are nocturnal, or very good at hiding.

It seems we only encounter these animals when they are dead on the side of the road or living somewhere we don’t want them to live, like in our attic. As a result, we mainly see them as pests and nuisances, albeit cute ones. Which is unfortunate. They are so much more than that. Raccoons and rats are amazingly intelligent, persistent and curious, qualities we admire in other humans. However, our expectation that urban homes are free of animals often brings us into conflict with them. It would be nice to see more public education about urban wildlife, so that an animal control website isn’t the first place we learn about our four-legged neighbors.

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